Twelve Years a Slave

Solomon Northup was a free black man who lived his whole life in New York until, in 1841, he took a job as a traveling musician. This job landed him in Washington, DC, where, despite possessing papers showing he was a free man, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. None of his captors believed his story (or so they claimed), and he was sent to New Orleans, where he was enslaved for 12 years. This book is his memoir of those years.

I became familiar with this story from the 2013 movie, and, although I don’t recall a lot of the details from the film, the general outlines of the two versions are the same. During his 12 years in Louisiana, Solomon is held as a slave by three different men, one of whom is relatively decent (as slave owners go) and the other of whom are cruel. He keeps his background a secret, having learned early on in his captivity that revealing his free status could put him in even greater danger than he already faced.

Northup writes in a straightforward manner, giving readers a sense of what day-to-day life was like for him and other slaves and also making note of the most dramatic events, such as the time when he was almost lynched for fighting back. It is, of course, a painful story, made bearable partly because as readers we know he survived.

I’m still mulling over Northup’s attitude toward his enslavers, particularly William Ford, who Northup describes as a good man. The fact that Ford is not overtly cruel to his slaves does not make their status any less horrendous. Even the “kindest” slave owners, by definition, denied freedom to human beings. But it is startling to see Northup mention that he thinks of Ford with affection. Perhaps it is only because, in comparison to his later masters, Ford was kind to his slaves. And Northup himself acknowledges that he has perhaps erred in “presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.”

I wonder to what degree Northup was influenced by his desire to reach white audiences with his anti-slavery message. Presenting all white men as devils would not be useful in that pursuit. He even makes a point of seeing them as victims, in a sense, of the system:

It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.

The system had “a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings” of slaveowners’ nature, leading them to devalue human life and ignore human suffering right in front of them.

Part of me reads this as making excuses to appease a white audience, but I also think it’s true that we are all part of a system that tries to keep us from seeing certain realities. That’s something that’s been on my mind a lot in recent weeks, as the past and present racism in my own state of Virginia has made national headlines. People sometimes do racist things out of ignorance. I find that hard to stomach when it comes to slavery, which is so obviously wrong, but I know I’ve had other, less obvious areas of ignorance. And so it’s important to look at what the system as a whole is teaching us. What message, for example, do our immigration policies send? Or our school funding formulas? Or our health care systems? What toxic opinions are we embedding in ourselves and our young people that will be difficult to extricate in the future?

Posted in Classics, Memoir, Nonfiction | 2 Comments

There There

One of the characters in Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is a filmmaker named Dene Ozendene who is taking over a project started by his uncle Lucas before his death. In an interview for a grant, he describes the work this way:

What he did, what I want to do, is to document Indian stories in Oakland. I want to put a camera in front of them, video, audio, I’ll transcribe it while they talk if they want, let them write, every kind of story I can collect, let them tell their stories with no one else there, with no direction or manipulation or agenda. I want them to be able to say they they want. Let the content direct the vision. There are so many stories here.

This book feels a little like that project in novel form. It’s the story of urban Indians in Oakland. Each chapter follows a different character, with Oakland seeming, for much of the book, to be their only commonality. They come from different tribes, if they are enrolled in a tribe at all. They are from different generations and have different experiences, although many have experienced some sort of trauma — a lost parent or a lost child or addiction or homelessness. These aren’t necessarily their own stories as they would tell them. Some chapters are in first person, but most are in third. (And they have a similar tone, which makes it sometimes hard to keep characters straight as the story expands.) But the book has that feeling that Dene describes, of being every kind of story, simply told with no clear agenda.

As the book goes on, all the stories converge on a single event, the Big Oakland Powwow. Some characters are helping organize the event. One of my favorite characters, Orvil Red Feather, is preparing to dance at the powwow for the first time, having taught himself secretly by watching YouTube videos, as his adopted grandmother (really, his great aunt) has been too busy working to keep the family fed to connect him with Indian traditions. I would have read a whole book about Orvil and his family.

This is a good book, well-written and engaging throughout. For me, there were a few too many characters. There’s a whole plot involving a robbery that could have been simplified. As it was, I didn’t care enough about the characters in that plot to feel invested in its outcome, aside from how it touched other characters that I did care about. And I did care about most of the characters. I appreciated the way Orange had certain themes echo across lives, while giving each character their own story.

I think it’s likely to do well in the Tournament of Books and even has a good shot at the rooster — better than my own favorites, which have qualities that are likely to irritate some readers. That’s not the case here. This is a solid and interesting read, especially for a first-time author.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 8 Comments

My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Tournament of Books reading continues with a dark and twisted and really enjoyable crime novel by Oyinkan Braithwaite. It doesn’t surpass Washington Black or So Lucky as top contenders, but it’s near the top, alongside Milkman.

The narrator of My Sister, the Serial Killer is a nurse named Korede, and her sister, Ayoola, is indeed a serial killer. As the book begins, Ayoola has just summoned Korede to help her clean up and dispose of the body after her third kill. In each case, she claims she was being attacked and had to defend herself. By the third time, Korede is having her doubts.

It doesn’t help that Ayoola is absolutely gorgeous and finds it easy to win men’s affections and convince both men and women to do what she wants, while Korede has to work hard to get any sort of attention or respect — or at least that’s how Korede feels. Ayoola has experienced her own suffering, and Korede knows that. It’s probably one of the reasons she’s so quick to protect her.

The situation becomes complicated when Ayoola meets Tade, a handsome doctor at the hospital where Korede works. Korede has been secretly in love with Tade for some time, but her hopes are dashed when Tade becomes instantly smitten with Ayoola. Korede is now worried for Tade, and also more than a little resentful of Ayoola.

The book moves quickly, in short chapters, always in Korede’s head. There are some flashbacks to past killings and past trauma. And a picture And while the book provides reasons for Ayoola’s violence and Korede’s loyalty, as well as her resentment, it doesn’t excuse either woman. They are doing bad things, for psychologically comprehensible reasons.

The plot gets more complex as it goes, and by the end, Korede’s situation is looking even more untenable. Yet there’s a sense of patterns continuing, always.

Posted in Fiction | 5 Comments

Mrs. Ames

This 1912 novel by E.F. Benson focuses on the people of a little English town who don’t seem to have much to do except to watch each other and gossip about who is dining with whom and when. Mrs. Ames (Amy) starts off a big round of gossip when she decides to host a dinner party at which certain wives and husbands of the town are invited to come without their spouses, allowing for, she hopes, more lively conversation.

It turns out that her own husband, Lyndhurst, becomes caught up in attraction to Millie Evans, his wife’s young and attractive cousin. Her doctor husband is often busy with his work, leaving her on her own, and so she soaks up Lyndhurst’s attention. It’s all very innocent, at least at first, but Mrs. Ames is suspicious and decides to do what she can to maintain her husband’s interest.

I haven’t read Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, but my understanding is that they’re light stories about social rivalries and ambitions, and that’s what this book is as well. But it’s also getting at some interesting ideas about the role of women and the bonds of marriage. Amy Ames is about 10 years older than her husband, and her age causes her considerable consternation, even though she appears to be in better health than he is. When a young and attractive rival shows up, the only thing she sees to do at first is to try to make herself look younger, coloring her hair and treating her skin, both of which open herself up to gossip. But so much of her life is about seeking the attention and affection of other people, especially her husband. What else can she do when she sees her husband’s affections drifting away, leaving her open to ridicule and even more vicious gossip.

Eventually, however, Mrs. Ames finds a new interest and takes up the cause of the suffragettes. I’m not quite sure what to make of Benson’s attitudes toward the suffragettes. The one demonstration Mrs. Ames organizes is something of a disaster. Yet the work gives her something meaningful to focus on, as she realizes when she reflects on her past efforts at beautification:

She had taken so much trouble with so paltry a purpose. And yet that innocent and natural coquetry was not quite dead in her; no woman’s heart need be so old that it no longer cares whether she is pleasing in her husband’s eyes. Only today, it seemed to Mrs Ames that her pains had been as disproportionate to her purpose as they had been to its result; now she longed to take pains for a purpose that was somewhat deeper than that for which she softened her wrinkles and refreshed the color of her hair.

In the end, though, this is not a book about a woman finding a new purpose through political action. Instead, political action and the strength she found in speaking up in that arena enables her to find the strength to speak up for her own marriage. So the narrative neither exactly endorses nor rejects the cause of women’s suffrage. It’s not a main concern of the narrative — more of a means to an end. But, in 1912, that might not be so bad.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | Leave a comment

The Light of the Fireflies

The 10-year-old who narrates this novel by Paul Pen (and translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni) has lived in the basement his whole life, never leaving. With him are his mother and father, his grandmother, and his brother and sister. The whole family, except for the boy, was badly burned in the world “up there.” His sister’s burns were so bad that, on her father’s orders, she wears a mask to protect the family from seeing her noseless face.

In this closed environment, the family has developed routines — reading books, watching movies, pedaling on the exercise bike. The boy frets about the “Cricket Man” who might come and take him away. The whole family prays to “The One Up There” who provides for their needs. The boy basks in the tiny spot of sun that when he can and is obsessed with insects, especially the fireflies that have made their way into the basement.

Shortly after the book begins, things change when the boy’s sister gives birth to a baby boy. The baby brings a new source of stress to the family, and the boy starts hearing unsettling conversations. And then the secrets begin being revealed.

This is a very dark story. Do the math about the baby and you’ll start to get a sense of realize how dark it gets. And the incest is only a small piece of it. Yet the boy can’t bring himself to see his situation as wrong. He sees what he wants to see and keeps himself from seeing certain realities that his family has trained him not to see.

I don’t generally mind a dark story, and, for the most part, I didn’t mind this, mostly because I was so curious as to what was actually going on. I had lots of theories, but none of them were even close. The answer is very clever and even explains some niggling points that bothered me but that I didn’t see as clues to what was happening.

It’s all very gripping, and I was fascinated by the idea of a child growing up in this alternate reality and coming to terms with the truth. It’s an extreme version of something everyone must go through, when they discover that their parents don’t have all the answers and sometimes make serious mistakes.

And then the book takes a few more turns that seem to wipe away some of the horrors that went before. I just couldn’t stomach that. I can see that the characters were put in an impossible position, but almost all the blame goes in one direction when it should be much more complicated than that. One of the characters is treated like a full-on villain in every way, when there was room for layers, for the character to be villain and victim. That was a disappointment, but I didn’t ruin my experience of the book entirely, especially because the very end worked really well. So, on the whole, a pretty good book, but a difficult one to recommend.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Ladies of Lyndon

By just about any measure, Agatha Cocks is lucky in her marriage. Sir John Clewer, while older, is kind and seems fond of Agatha, and she will have the honor of becoming the mistress of Lyndon, a grand country house. John’s extended family are, for the most part, welcoming, and there’s every reason for her to believe that she will have a good life ahead.

However, John wasn’t Agatha’s first choice. Before her marriage, she had a brief flirtation with her cousin, Gerald. Now a doctor, Gerald was deemed an altogether inappropriate choice for marriage, and Agatha’s mother was quick to put a stop to the relationship.

While Agatha is the central character in Margaret Kennedy’s 1923 debut novel, the rest of the family is important at rounding out the picture, not just of what Agatha’s marriage is like, but of what marriage in that era could be. There’s the couple that bonds over intellect, and another that seems to bond over social status. They both seem happy, in their way, but it’s a happiness that, I think, comes from acceptance of their situation. The happiest marriage is the one that is most unexpected, the one between John’s younger brother and a servant. James, John’s brother, is an artist and presumed by the family to be mentally deficient. The nature of his supposed disability is never clear, and Agatha herself questions whether there is actually anything wrong with him.

As the book goes on, Agatha becomes increasingly discontented with her own marriage. It’s not that John is cruel or unpleasant or that she dislikes her life at Lyndon. It just doesn’t make her happy. But chasing after her own happiness brings complications that may in fact lead to her unhappiness.

I found a lot of what this book is trying to do to be pretty interesting. For instance, being able to see different couples coming together, each in their own way, gave the whole story a pleasing sense of texture, but only those of Agatha and of James are well-developed. Of course, not all characters can be central characters, but it wasn’t always clear to me whether this was meant to be an ensemble piece or a book mostly about Agatha. By the end, Agatha’s centrality is clear, but there were points when it looked like other characters were going to get a more extensive treatment, and their stories ended up petering out. There are also several sudden leaps in time where it seemed like important events were simply glossed over. Maybe I would have liked it more if the book had either been more ambitious, with a large ensemble rendered in detail, or less ambitious, with a character study of a single woman.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the book. I liked it quite a bit. I just found it easier to put down and harder to pick up than I wanted it to be. I was interested, but only toward the end did I feel much tension regarding where the story was going.

But toward the end, the book does pick up. And at this point, I especially liked that Agatha’s choices are allowed to be complex. I think the book leans in a particular direction regarding what is the right choice for her in the end, but the dilemma is real. There’s a genuine tension between whether to make the choice that is emotionally satisfying in the moment yet full of risk or to make the choice that is safe but less thrilling. By the end of the book, the choice that on paper would seem most responsible starts to look unwise in the long term. (Here’s where the leaps in time serve the story well, because Agatha is dealing with the consequences of a choice that looked good on paper.) And the final moment provides that gulp of suspense I’d been hoping for all along.

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Grandma Gatewood’s Walk

Every once in a while, I like to introduce a little bookish chaos into my life, and one fun way to do so is by ordering a Bas Bleu surprise package. So many of the books in their catalog look enjoyable (and are already on my list) that I’m sure to end up with a few things I’m already interested in and, perhaps, a few things I’d never heard of but am willing to try. I ordered myself a box for Christmas 2016, and this book by Ben Montgomery was one of the books inside. I’d never heard of it, or of Grandma Gatewood, but it looked like it might be entertaining enough, so I kept it. And what an enjoyable read it turned out to be!

For those as unaware as I was, Emma Gatewood was the first woman to walk the entire Appalachian Trail alone (2,168 miles) in a single season. This was in 1955, when through-hiking was not quite the phenomenon it is now, and Gatewood was 67 years old. She was wearing Keds and carried with her just a denim bag, filled with the most basic supplies. She hadn’t even told her 11 children where she was going, other than that she was going for a walk. Having read about the AT in National Geographic a few years earlier, she thought it would be a good lark for someone like her who loves walking outdoors.

It was not an easy trip, partly because the AT was not as well marked or maintained then as it is now. Montgomery subtitled the book “The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail” because of Gatewood’s account of the trail conditions. She was open about how what she found differed from the vision in National Geographic of hikes that anyone of moderate fitness could handle with good shelters about a day’s hike apart. And thanks to her account, as well as the general interest in the trail that her trip generated, the AT was rerouted in some areas and work was done to improve maintenance overall.

The trail improvements, however, are not the main focus of the book, which is really about Grandma Gatewood’s first full journey up the trail. Each chapter focuses on a different stretch of the trail and includes maps and dates, so it’s easy to get a sense of where she is on the walk from Georgia to Maine. Throughout the narrative, Montgomery also intersperses information about Gatewood’s past and the abusive marriage she’d managed to break free from, as well as context about the history of the trail and other events that are relevant to the story. Some of these asides felt a little too tangential, but most of the time, the historical context fits in well.

I’m not a hiker, although I’ve been on short hikes on the Virginia sections of the AT, but I still found Emma Gatewood’s story fascinating. I devoured the book in a single day and had a lot of fun doing so.

Posted in Biography, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration | 4 Comments

The Doctor’s Wife

Ever since Kae was a little girl, she was fascinated by the Hanaoka family, especially Otsugi, a beautiful woman who married into the family. So Kae was delighted when Otsugi approached her family to ask if Kae would marry her son, Umpei. For the first few years of the marriage, Umpei is in medical school, and Kae lives with his family. All is well, and Kae feels at home with the family. But when Umpei returns home, a competition ensues between Otsugi and Kae, with each one seeking to be the center of Umpei’s life and affection.

Sawako Ariyoshi based this 1966 novel (translated from Japanese by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Stiller Kostant) on the life of Hanaoka Seishū, a pioneer in the treatment of breast cancer and the first surgeon to use general anesthesia (in 1804). In the novel, he owes his success to Kae and Otsugi, but the book is not an inspirational story of the great women behind the man. Instead, it’s a story of how, in a society centered on men’s success, women have no choice but to prostrate themselves before men, being willing to give up even their lives in order to gain the affection and respect of the men in power.

This is a good (and short) book, but I found it extremely disturbing. There are some sections involving animal experimentation that were very difficult to read, although I could certainly understand their importance to the story (and to the work Seishū was doing). The role of the women in the work rattled me considerably, especially because it wasn’t clear that they cared about the work so much as about winning the war of reputation and Seishū’s affection. Late in the book, one of the characters says, “I think this sort of tension among females … is … to the advantage … of … every male.” And that’s exactly how it works in this book. Yet the women are (or claim to be) happy to do it.

I’m still pondering some of the differences in Seishū’s treatment of his mother versus his wife. He gives his wife more of what the two women say they want, but, given that what they want is not good for them, he’s actually kinder to his mother. So what does that say about his feelings for the two women? Does he respect Kae’s strength more than his mother’s? Or does he care more about his mother’s life? Would he even be able to articulate why he makes the choices he does?

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment

House of Broken Angels

My reading of contenders for the 2019 Tournament of Books continues with this much-lauded novel by Luis Alberto Urrea. Alas, although I’m not sure if it’s my mood or the book itself, this ended up being not a great book for me.

The novel is set in San Diego, where Big Angel, the patriarch of a large Mexican-American family is preparing to die, not long after the death of his mother. In fact, he and his family decide to combine what will most likely be his very last birthday party with the funeral of his mother, holding both events on the same weekend. A strange choice, perhaps, but the pragmatic side of me appreciates it. Plus, there’s something lovely about the combination of celebrating a life after its end and celebrating a life nearing its end. As it turns out Big Angel’s party gets most of the emotional weight. It’s the second event, he’s the center of the story, and he’s still around to be part of it.

The family is a large one, and the reader is thrown right into the melee, as Big Angel and his closest relatives prepare to go to the funeral. It took me a while to get a handle on all the relationships, especially because some of the characters are called by nicknames. I ended up making a little family tree, just to keep track. And even then, once the extended family arrives, there are people whose relationship to the core group is never made clear. Although this made the book a challenge to read, it didn’t really turn me off of it. I like big family stories, and I appreciated the many different aspects of the Mexican-American experience we could see through the many family members.

However, I ended up getting tired of the depiction of women, who are unfailingly nurturing or entirely sexual. It’s very much a book where the women feel like they’re filtered through a male gaze. Some of these depictions, especially that of Perla, Big Angel’s wife, are tender and sweet, but I would have liked to have seen at least one woman whose life didn’t seem to revolve around taking care of or having sex with the men in the book. And, for the most part, I don’t get what makes these men soooo appealing.

I did like the story of Little Angel, Big Angel’s younger half-brother (they share a father, but Little Angel’s mother was white). There are some interesting things about identity going on in his story, and I appreciated Urrea’s depiction of how his unease with being among the rest of the family interacted with his desire to be there and the warm (but uneasy) welcome he receives.

There’s also a subplot involving gang violence that never made much sense to me, although it was important in leading up to the book’s closing sequence. And there’s a queer son who is, unfortunately, sidelined for most of the book. I would have liked to hear more about him and the family’s attitude toward him. That thread is wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly.

I’ve seen a lot of reviews that describe this book as messy but ultimately magnificent. For me, the mess of it was a little too much. There are some great moments — the miniature city Big Angel built with a neighbor, the parrot, Big Angels funeral commentary — but the novel as a whole didn’t hang together for me. I think I would have liked this a lot more if it had been a book of short stories about the family. There would have been less need to impose a single (uneven) narrative thread over the whole thing, and the funeral and party could still have bookended the collection. And the great character moments and funny and sweet incidents could each have had a time to shine.

Posted in Fiction | 9 Comments

My Mother’s House and Sido

These two novella/memoirs by Colette are fine examples of well-written books that appear to do exactly what they set out to do but that still fail to engage me. I can see that the writing is lovely and effective at conjuring up a sense of place and character, but I just couldn’t bring myself to ever care very much. Because there’s just no narrative through line to capture my interest.

My Mother’s House (translated from French by Una Vincenzo Troubridge and Enid McLeod consists of a series of short vignettes, most about four pages long, about Colette’s childhood, with a focus on her mother, known to the family as Sido. The second book in the volume, Sido (translated by Enid McLeod), consists of three character studies—of Colette’s mother, father, and brothers.

The writing really is the best thing about these books. Here, for instance, is a paragraph from a story about the animal life in Colette’s childhood home:

All was faery and yet simple among the fauna of my early home. You could never believe that a cat could eat strawberries? And yet, because I have seen him so many times, I know that Babou, that black Satan, interminable and sinuous as an eel, would carefully select in Madame Pomie’s kitchen garden the ripest of the Royal Sovereigns or the Early Scarlets. He is was, too, who would be discovered poetically absorbed in smelling newly-opened violets.

It paints a vivid picture, but that’s almost all the book is, vivid pictures that don’t go anywhere much. Each vignette operates not like a short story but like a painting, a moving painting, yes, but one without much action.

I don’t generally consider myself a person who needs a lot of plot to enjoy a book, but I’ve come to appreciate a good story more and more in recent years. And a total lack of story just doesn’t work much.

So what I’m wondering now is whether this style is typical of Colette’s work. Do the Claudine books, for example, have more of a story? I liked the writing enough that I’m open to trying more, but if all her books are like this, she may not be a writer for me.

Posted in Classics | 4 Comments